Chicago Professor Claims Collin College Attempted to Crack Down on His Free Speech, Too

Multiple academic groups have written in support of Dr. Michael Phillips.
Multiple academic groups have written in support of Dr. Michael Phillips. Mike Brooks
Several former employees have accused Collin College of smothering their free speech. Now, a Chicago-based professor claims the embattled school has also tried to stifle his First Amendment rights — from more than 900 miles away.

Earlier this year, history professor Benjamin H. Johnson circulated a petition calling for an investigation into whether Collin College had flouted its accrediting agency's academic freedom standards. Johnson, who works at Loyola University Chicago, was concerned that the North Texas school declined to renew the contract of history professor Michael Phillips.

Phillips has accused Collin College of firing him in violation of his free speech rights and worked his last day earlier this month. He claims administrators were upset he’d recommended students wear masks amid the pandemic, and that he’d co-authored an open letter in 2017 calling for the removal of Confederate monuments.

Last week, Johnson said, he was called into a meeting about an email that Collin College President Neil Matkin had sent. In it, Matkin purportedly pressed Loyola’s president on whether Johnson had been “speaking for the institution" in the petition he'd circulated.

Johnson said he never claimed to represent Loyola. To him, this was Matkin’s way of trying to retaliate against professors with concerns about Collin College’s alleged constitutional breaches.

“I just think it’s a terrible thing that somebody with that mindset would be the president of an institution of higher education in the 21st century,” he said. “I mean, this sounds like Russia or something.”
Phillips is a respected, award-winning teacher, author and historian. Higher education groups have called on the school for his reinstatement as the political climate has turned increasingly hostile toward educators.

K-12 public schools in Texas and beyond have become battlegrounds for partisan issues, with some conservatives attempting to ban discourse on racism and sexuality. It’s a push that’s also begun to trickle into higher ed, with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick vowing to revoke tenure for certain professors, such as those who teach critical race theory.

“They really demand that faculty respect the administration, but they don’t show any respect for the First Amendment.” – Greg Greubel, FIRE

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It’s highly unusual for a college’s president to contact leadership at another school, especially in another state, to complain about a professor’s behavior, Phillips said.

Johnson is a top scholar of Texas history and isn’t someone who’s going to get intimidated, Phillips said. If Collin College is attempting to silence him in the way that it has its own faculty, they’ll be disappointed.

More than 80 professors in Texas and historians of Texas have signed Johnson's petition, Phillips added.

“The profession as a whole can see that what’s happening at Collin College is not normal, that this is a violation of academic norms,” he said.

Collin College did not respond to the Observer’s request for comment.

Greg Greubel, a lawyer with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, is representing Phillips in a lawsuit against his former employer. This is the first time Greubel has heard of a college president doing something like this.

Collin College has attempted to create a “regime of silence” among faculty, something that they’re also now apparently extending outside their own campus doors, he argued. The school doesn't want professors speaking out on matters of public concern, or for the public to learn what’s going on there.

“They really demand that faculty respect the administration,” Greubel said, “but they don’t show any respect for the First Amendment.”

Collin College used to have an incredible history department, Johnson said, but they continue pushing talented faculty out. In addition to Phillips, historian Lora Burnett has claimed the school effectively fired her last year after she criticized former Vice President Mike Pence on social media.

Johnson believes that Matkin is turning himself into a pariah in higher education. The way he tells it, it makes him sad that Matkin has inflicted as much damage to Collin College's reputation as he has: “You’ve got to figure at some point, the people on the board are going to be like: ‘How much time and energy and money are we going to spend cleaning up Neil Matkin’s mess?’”
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Simone Carter, a staff news reporter at the Dallas Observer, graduated from the University of North Texas' Mayborn School of Journalism. Her favorite color is red, but she digs Miles Davis' Kind of Blue.
Contact: Simone Carter